Helping Family Trees Bear Fruit Genealogy Groups Click with Online Resources

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Byline: Tom O'Konowitz Daily Herald Staff Writer

Looking for old family letters, searching census records, talking to elderly relatives, digging through archives for birth, death and marriage certificates - the urge to fill out the branches on the family tree can lead to an immense undertaking.

People in McHenry County and the greater Chicago area are among the millions around the world who have ventured into this age-old pursuit of tracing their roots.

After hundreds of years as a leading hobby, genealogy is attracting even more followers, and experts are crediting the surge in popularity to the Internet.

To learn more about how the Internet can assist in tracking family roots, hundreds of people from the region headed to McHenry County recently to gather some pointers from a nationally known author. Cyndi Howells, the creator of a massive Web site that outlines the Web's resources for tracing ancestors, shared some hints with local genealogists looking to log on to the past.

"It's important to use the Internet to work with all of the other resources at the library or genealogical society," Howells said during her presentation at McHenry County College. "You still have to go out and find the actual records, but the Internet will help to get you there."

"The Internet has totally revolutionized genealogy," said Dereka Smith, a librarian at the National Genealogical Society. "It's changing everything - who's doing it, how they're doing it and what they're finding."

Resources on the Web are making it easier for people to find their ancestors in ways previously unavailable.

"Now there are surname lists on the Internet, so you can get in touch with people from all over who are working on the same research - and you can share," Smith said. "Genealogy used to require an immense amount of time during business hours to go to archives, libraries and courthouses for records," she added. "You still have to do that, but now you can work on the Internet and find things from three in the morning until five, if you want."

The impact of the Internet on genealogy is evident in the numerous rankings of Web-site hits that regularly list genealogy sites among the most-visited.

In McHenry and Kane counties, the increasing popularity of cyber-genealogy is quite noticeable.

"The Internet is a very useful tool in doing a family history," said Jim Connelly of Wonder Lake. "There's a lot of information out there, and, every day, more and more of it is coming online."

Connelly started using Internet sites to help compile his family history about four years ago, when he began his search.

Connelly found his great-grandfather's burial site on a Web site, and the Internet led his wife to census records and her great-great grandfather's marriage certificate.

"With so much information, you would find a piece here or a piece there, and they're all over the place," Connelly said. "The Internet brings it all together."

During his three years of membership with the McHenry County Genealogical Society, Connelly said he has noticed changes in the field of family research.

"I've noticed, over the past couple years, lots of younger people are starting to get into genealogy, and that's probably because of the Internet," Connelly said. "Traditionally, older people are more involved, and they're starting to use the Internet more in their searches."

Hundreds of other genealogists from McHenry and surrounding counties attended the daylong Internet instruction with the creator of Cyndi's List Web site, the online ancestry resource that has received more than 11 million visits.

Howells, who started her list in 1996, said she hopes the site is a valuable tool for those researching their family roots.

"I firmly believe that the Internet is the jumping-off point for genealogy. It's like a card catalog in the library," Howells said. …